Matilda Davis’s paintings tend to be dwarfed by the gallery walls they are hung on. They require close study to begin to penetrate their meaning, particularly as they are inhabited by detail that is surreal and incongruent. You might find, like in Family Time Again Twice in One Week, a red cloth draped in front of a pillar (a sign of a joyous event in Christian iconography), a bright blue marron crawling towards an abyss, a tree-piercing starfish (or entrails), and naïvely painted horses. Davis’s paintings also come trimmed in ribbon and fake pearls.
While one might draw a rapid conclusion that surrealism is her starting point, the way Davis’s works reference medieval or gothic dress, and a kind of grotesqueness, recall grottesche – forms that adorned Gothic buildings and conceptualised alterity. “I want to explore the complicated intersections of religion, sexuality and mental illness as what they are.” Each canvas is ripe with personal meaning – a dark brown swan bears bad tidings; a pink swan brings offspring to parents.
Davis admits a passion for symbols and “their complicated history and evolution.” Through the imagery she maps out her own history – her strict Catholic education for instance – and the symbols allow her to speak more obliquely about what is delicate and personal.
And what of those ribbons with which Davis adorns her canvases? “They keep everything held together and in place; if you undid the ribbons the contents of the painting would unravel onto the floor.”
This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.